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A Question of Blood: The Conflict of Sex and Class in the Autobiografía of Victoria Ocampo

Janet Greenberg

Victoria Ocampo (1891–1979) was a trilingual woman of letters widely known in Argentina as a magazine editor and book publisher, essayist and autobiographer, salon leader and patroness of the arts. From the 1930s until her death, Ocampo was best known in international circles as the founder and sole director of Sur —the longest-lived literary magazine in South America, founded as an international vehicle for exchange between the Americas and Europe—and of a companion publishing house, Editorial SUR. An imposing beauty born into a first family of Argentina, she flaunted the privileges of her class, using her sizable fortune to finance her magazine and book-publishing enterprises and to publish the majority of her own works.

When Ocampo died in 1979, she left behind three generations of faithful followers and equally bitter enemies who have alternately glorified and vilified her in the popular and intellectual press for over half a century. Indeed, since the 1930s she has been the bête noire of the Catholic establishment, Peronist critics of the oligarchy, and left-wing critics of Peronism and cultural imperialism. She has also been championed as Argentina's first lady of letters and patroness of the arts and culture, while critics have juxtaposed her to Eva Perón as a symbol of that upper-class breed of feminist whose class interests invariably override allegiance to members of their sex. It is clear that both her ambiguous status in Argentine cultural history and the divided voice she manifests as director and contributor in her magazine find their source in her sexuality—her identity as a woman and a feminist. In her dual role as director of Sur and testimonial essayist, she was trapped between a defense of "permanent standards of artistic excellence"[1] and a lament about her own lack of artistry, even while she developed a formidable autobiographical persona and evolved as a sophisticated feminist critic in her context.

Though Ocampo is usually identified as the spokesperson for and driving


force behind the editorial policies of her magazine, she has only recently been taken seriously as a writer.[2] Yet she was an accomplished essayist whose collected writings constitute a lifelong exploration in autobiographical form. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing until the late 1970s, she published ten volumes of collected Testimonios and a dozen other book-length works. Since her death in 1979, six volumes of Autobiografía have also appeared.[3] Probably the second most talked-about woman in Argentina—the first is Eva Perón—Ocampo seems also the second most mystified. Friends and foes alike have tended to attribute enormous powers of influence to her magazine, while there is almost total neglect of her Testimonios by scholars of the genre and little agreement (or serious discussion) about the quality of her writing or influence in Sur .

Sur , initially conceived as a vehicle for the exchange of ideas among South America, North America, and Europe, has been implicated in the most important debates about the politics of culture in Argentina in this century; its longevity is matched only by the polemic that still surrounds its role in shaping Argentine culture from the 1930s through the 1970s. Modeled on cultural magazines like the Spanish Revista de Occidente , the American Partisan Review , the English Scrutiny , and the French Nouvelle revue française , it is widely respected for quality translations by Ocampo and others of modern French- and English-language authors into Spanish—including Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Rabindranath Tagore, and many others. Latin Americans such as Jorge Luis Borges first published much of their best work in its pages. Although the magazine changed editors-in-chief at several junctures, Ocampo alone directed and financed its publication continuously from 1930 until her death in 1979, making Sur exceptional among modern literary magazines for the coherence of its direction and length of continuous publication.

John King has noted that as director of Sur , Ocampo issued high-toned official statements that defended "the continuity of culture, the unchanging order, and the discipline of the intellectual even in troubled times,"[4] while she insists on Sur 's right to judge superior art and literature. Yet in her testimonial essays she is unable to reconcile the voice of personal experience as a woman and writer with the authoritative tone of a magazine director who defends the literary production of others.

Sympathetic and hostile critics alike have displayed a general inability to go beyond Ocampo's impressive public persona in order to analyze either the autobiographical form of her personal writings or her pivotal role as literary entrepreneur in Sur and Editorial SUR. Few have made more than cursory connections between the two contiguous aspects of her literary career. Her cultural influence extended beyond the sphere of publishing: she was a driving force behind numerous artistic and literary societies and cultural exchange programs linking Argentina to other continents. In 1975 she was the


first woman ever invited to join the Argentine Academy of Letters as a full member, and she was honored by governments and universities in several countries over the decades. Historians of feminism in Argentina are similarly divided about her contributions to women's political and social liberation in general and the quality of her own feminist rebellion. The publication of the Autobiografía at regular intervals since her death in 1979 seems to have kept the range of conjectures about her life alive, but has not yet given rise to substantial critical debate over its content or import in the context of Ocampo's collected work.

The most prevalent image of Ocampo in the Argentine popular press is still that of the flamboyant, widely traveled collector of famous figures, both Argentine and international. From the 1930s through the 1970s, her social activities made news regularly in the cultural sections—and occasionally on the front pages—of the same daily papers in which she often published her essays. Her attraction to famous people—most often writers, but also philosophers, musicians, and statesmen like De Gaulle, Mahatma Gandhi, and Indira Gandhi—was acknowledged and defended by herself as often as it was disparaged by both critics of the liberal oligarchy and collaborators in Sur . In popular mythology, Ocampo is still at least as well known as an exotic femme fatale—the "amazona de la Pampa" (as Count Hermann Keyserling dubbed her) who flaunted her fortune and sexuality (to the titillation of some and the disgust of others) by driving alone with bare arms in Buenos Aires in the 1920s—as for her fifty-year commitment to publishing Sur as an international forum for ideas and literature.

Through all this, Ocampo is primarily considered as a woman and a public personality—not as an essayist, autobiographer, publisher, or magazine director. Yet her image is riddled with contradictions. Though she was a flamboyant public figure who enjoyed her celebrity, she apparently shrank from conversation in groups larger than two. José Bianco, her friend for over fifty years and editor-in-chief of Sur from 1938 to 1961, has noted that "Victoria era tan confidencial escribiendo porque lo era tan poco en la vida real" [Victoria was so intimate in her writing because she so lacked intimacy in real life]. Yet when he describes her as both extremely bold and timid, brazen and infantile, and concludes that her power emanated from some deep dark place that he calls her "innata aristrocracia," Bianco also epitomizes an ambivalence toward this powerful female figure, an ambivalence that is detectable even in the comments of her most sympathetic memorialists:

No quiero decir queen la vida real Victoria fuera menos persuasiva que cuando escribía, pero entonces su persuasión no provenía de las palabras. Provenía de su innata aristocracia, de su porte, de su presencia. No necesitaba hablar para traslucir inteligencia.[5]


[I don't mean to say that in real life Victoria was less persuasive than when she wrote, but then, her persuasiveness did not come from words. It came from her innate aristocracy, from her conduct, from her presence. She didn't have to talk to show her intelligence.]

Recently remembered as "la mujer más hermosa de este lado de la Garbo y la Crawford que el Río de la Plata habia visto en cuerpo y alma"[6] [the most beautiful woman besides Garbo and Crawford that the Río de la Plata had ever seen in flesh and spirit], she is most often portrayed as a woman who, mysteriously, conveyed her power by being, rather than through her actions or literary production. Such commentaries suggest the myth and ambivalence that surround her public image and the difficulty of assessing her autobiographical writings as literature.

In 1952, when Victoria Ocampo resumed writing her Autobiografía , she was 62 years old (she was born in 1890) and already a polemical figure in Argentina. She continued to revise this work until shortly before her death in 1979. The Autobiografía seems meant to supply the background—and the last word—for reading Ocampo's collected work, which she began to publish timidly in the 1920s, but which burst forth in the 1930s and continued in a steady flow for the following four decades. More than any text published during her lifetime, the Autobiografía provides vital glimpses into the clash of influences, messages, and goals she established for herself as an Argentine woman of letters. This text provides a provocative point of departure from which to examine the paradoxical literary identity of Ocampo—a woman divided between allegiance to her sex and a conflicting attachment to the privileges of her class.

By focusing on Ocampo's posthumous autobiography, this discussion will analyze Ocampo's attempt to reconcile through the autobiographical writing the contradictions she displays as a woman and a self-avowed feminist who also championed the patriarchal values of the ruling class. In this primary step toward re-vision[7] of Ocampo's life and work and the myth surrounding both, she is most informatively considered in her various roles as a writer, publisher, and social figure who was torn between adherence to male models and the need for self-affirmation in each sphere. By its posthumous publication and contents, the Autobiografía represents the nexus between three interrelated facets of her literary career. In its exploration of the contradictions of the "blood ties" that defined her femininity as well as her birthright in the patriarchal ruling class, the Autobiografía provides an essential link between the testimonial essays, in which she focuses her experience through the works and lives of others, and her role as director of Sur , where she sponsored and coordinated the texts of others (mostly men) who shared her belief in the immutability of high artistic standards, but not her search for a language that would break the bonds of patriarchy.


This reading is concerned with a primary task of gynocentric criticism as described by Elaine Showalter: "to plot the precise cultural locus of female literary identity and to describe the forces that intersect an individual woman writer's cultural field.[8] In this exploration of the "vexed relation" to male literary culture which Ocampo shares with many women writers, it is assumed that "gender both informs and complicates both the reading and writing of texts."[9] The case of this woman of letters who composed in the "personal" genres of autobiography and memoir while maintaining a strong profile as a cultural businesswoman poses a challenge to the traditional marginalization of women's autobiographical writing and the role of businesswomen of letters who have managed publishing empires that have shaped the course of cultural debate. By analyzing the ways in which her literary language and multifaceted cultural project both trapped and liberated her, I hope to contribute to the demystification of this important female figure in modern Latin American cultural history, whose portion and profile were exceptional in her environment but by no means unique to it. In the unexplored space between her image as a public figure—"la parte visible del iceberg Ocampo"[10] [the visible part of the iceberg Ocampo]—and the lesser-known private self revealed through the autobiographical writings, there lies a striking example of the paradoxes of female literary accomplishment.

"La [Otra] Mitad de la Verdad"

Cada autor, grande o pequeño, genial o mediocre, escribe un solo libro a lo largo de su vida, aun cuando cambie de título y de tema.[11]

[Every author, great or small, brilliant or mediocre, writes a single book during his lifetime, though its title or theme may change.]

Lo cierto es que no conozco por dentro ninguna materia fuera de la que usaba [Montaigne]: 'Je suis moy mesme la matière de mon livre.'[12]

[It is certain that I know no other material than that used by Montaigne: 'I am myself the material of my book.']

Ocampo's six-volume Autobiografía is remarkable for its prehistory of the author. Obviously foreseen for posthumous publication (and prepared by the author with complete photo-inconography, it traces her ancestry, childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood through the first three decades of the twentieth century and stops with the inauguration of Sur in 1931. In references sprinkled throughout her work, Ocampo says she began composing her "memorias" (memoirs) in the 1930s; she continued to work on them until shortly before her death in 1979. She undertook the major revisions in 1952–1953.


The years from puberty in the early 1900s through first great love lost in 1929 are the focal points of the narrative. These three decades are characterized by a seemingly endless series of rites of passage; anecdote and confession are accompanied by letters written and received from key personal friends and correspondence between historic ancestors central to the story. In the Autobiografía , unlike the Testimonios , the history of her family which grounds the story and the rites of passage and existential crises which punctuate it all take her body and female sexuality as their explicit battleground.

The focus on her corporality as the point of integration and conflict is a remarkable departure from the typically disembodied and ethereal discussion of her self which permeates the testimonial essays published during her life. The story is built around moments of crisis and transition: she is portrayed as a sexual being coming of age in a patriarchal ruling-class environment and forced to confront rigid Victorian codes of behavior. Key stages in her sexual coming of age—menstruation, rejection of her maternal instincts—form the base of the personal, social, and professional choices she says she made in the first forty years of life. The tale culminates in the founding of Sur , the work she considered her greatest achievement.

Ocampo depicts herself in the decades that preceded the founding of Sur as an initially timid rebel victimized by a complex system of double standards that held her prisoner—first in her father's house, then in her husband's—until she rebelled, first into passionate adultery and then into the world of literary production. The Autobiografía must be considered as a parallel text, for it was composed over the same forty-year period in which the Testimonios and volumes of Sur established Ocampo's reputation and kept her relentlessly in the public eye. Given the magnitude of her published work and the dearth of critical consensus about its import in Argentine letters, this Autobiografía raises particular questions. The first concerns Ocampo's exclusive choice of focus upon her early years from the vantage point of the 1950s. What image of her formative years did she compose in the last three decades of her life for publication after her death? From a writer whose "yoismo" was legendary for over half a century, and whose entire corpus constitutes an exercise in autobiographical form, does this work represent "la [otra] mitad de la verdad," as she insisted, or is it merely the concluding chapter of her official history, filling in the early years before she became a public figure and entered the world of international personalities? What, finally, did she hope to add to—or change in—the reading of her life story by this posthumous pubication?

Purposely withheld from publication until her death (although she circulated versions of the manuscript among friends), the six volumes were released at regular intervals of about one year from 1980 to 1985. The spiciest parts of the narrative—especially the account of her illicit love affair with "J" in the 1920s, described in passionate if abstract terms—have been excerpted


by Argentine equivalents of Life, Time , and Cosmopolitan to form the basis of continuing "human interest" stories in the popular press.[13] But neither the sensational reproduction of photoessays nor her continued presence in the book review pages of the Buenos Aires press has provoked the serious reconsideration of her life or work called for by this posthumous publication. The Autobiografía gives impetus to a rereading of Ocampo as a woman and literary personality whose public image as "Señora cultura"[14] approaches mythic status, but whose self-image and consciousness as a woman remain surprisingly guarded by the author (although amply debated by acquaintances).

What seems to have concerned her most is the revelation of her emotional and physical development as a woman—important grounding for her identity as writer, publisher, journalist, or society matron, but never focused on in her other writing on its own terms. Describing the Autobiografía as a "documento"—"cualquier cosa que sirve para ilustrar o comprobar algo" (1:60) [whatever works to illustrate or prove something]—Ocampo states her intention to tell the truth about her coming of age as a member of one of Buenos Aires's first families at the height of the Victorian era:

No me cabe duda de que se podrá pensar, con todas las apariencias de la razón, que el único drama sufrido, las únicas dificultades vencidas en mi adolescencia y juventud, eran de la índole del desayuno que no llegó a hora fija, o del baño sin agua caliente por una momentánea descompostura de la caldera. Sin embargo, esto que parecería ser la verdad no es toda la verdad, ni siquiera la mitad de la verdad (2:9–10).

[I have no doubt that one could think, with all apparent justification, that the only traumas I suffered, the only difficulties I overcame in my youth and adolescence, were along the lines of a breakfast that wasn't served on time or having to take a cold bath because of a temporary loss of hot water. Nonetheless, that which would appear to be the truth is not the whole truth, not even half the truth.]

She envisioned this work as a means to self-discovery ("alumbramiento") and thus a liberation from the sense of feeling so different from others that plagues her. Through the process she hopes to give birth to herself. At the same time, by reconciling who she was with who she wishes she had been (6: 11–13), she will also exonerate herself in the eyes of present and future critics:

Hay dos sentimientos diferentes que me llevan a escribir estas Memorias. Uno es esa necesidad de alumbramiento, de confesión general; es el más importante. El otro es el deseo de tomar la delantera a posibles biografías futuras, con una autobiografía explícita (6: 13).

[There are two different sentiments that motivate me to write these memoirs. One is the necessity for enlightenment, for a general confession; this is the most


important. The other is the desire to get a jump on possible future biographies with an explicit autobiography.]

Her final choice of the title Autobiografía for the posthumous volumes (as opposed to the Testimonios , memoirs published during her life) signals a bold distinction between this autobiographical "tale of becoming" and previously published memoirs of "the outer world for people and events."[15] Until the late 1970s Ocampo intended to title the autobiography "Memoirs," indicating a paradoxical resistance to validating the work as more than occasional writing, the shield she used to defend the Testimonios . As she considers the applicability of terms like "confession" and "document" in her autobiography, her dual purpose of vindication in the public eye and self-revelation takes clear shape.

In the Autobiografía , Ocampo's story is framed as a classic case of feminist consciousness-raising. The story outlines a conflict between who she is and who others want her to be, and offers a justification for who she became. By its posthumous publication, Ocampo offers this text as the concluding installment in a fifty-year project to balance official history and intimate memoirs in all her literary activities.

It is hardly a coincidence that she resumed this project in 1952—the year in which Eva Perón, died and Juan Perón began his second term as president. Eva Perón's autobiography La razón de mi vida was published in 1951 and helped inscribe her permanently in Peronist hagiography.[16] Eva's presentation of her public persona in the Peronist Party, with almost no mention of her origins, family, or career before she met Juan, could not contrast more with the blood legacy Ocampo retraces so painstakingly. When spoken of together, Ocampo and Eva Perón are usually placed at opposite ends of the Argentine feminist spectrum, yet these autobiographical texts illustrate the straddling of traditions—male/female, national/international, contemporary/historical—and the conflict between class and sex which are central to rereading the lives of and myths surrounding both.

Eva's autobiography seeks to strengthen the official history of the Peronist Party: it is the story of Eva's self-sacrifice to her mission to serve the people, and a song of praise to Juan Perón, the figure who subsumes all other points of reference in her personal and political history. An iconoclastic figure, she presents herself as an exceptional but at heart conventional woman. Ocampo, by contrast, steeps herself in the oligarchic, patriarchic tradition into which she was born, loudly proclaiming her unconventionality and iconoclastic tendencies. Yet Ocampo's autobiography is as distinct from those of her male oligarchic forefathers and peers as it is from the officialist memoir of Evita couched in working-class, saintly, and feminine terms. Ocampo demonstrates the problematic position of female members of the Argentine elite: clearly at odds with the male autobiographical and literary traditions,


they have been accorded no similarly stable position in the elite mythology, yet they continue to claim it as their own. Both Eva Perón and Ocampo present their life stories in forms that expose the paradoxical status of their positions in Peronist and anti-Peronist mythology.

In the 1950s, Ocampo was increasingly defensive about her own brand of feminism (women's suffrage was granted in 1947 through Eva's decisive influence), and Sur 's standards of "culture" were constantly under attack from Peronists and the anti-Peronist left (Contorno , for example, was initiated in 1953). Sur celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 1952 with the most deluxe issue of its history; yet recent historians mark this period as the beginning of its decline.

The three major phases in the dramatic (melodramatic?) story of Ocampo's coming of age take her body as their central battleground and metaphor. A detailed outline of her lineage in volume 1, recognizable from Argentine history books and her own writings, sets the stage for her struggle to reconcile an imposing family heritage with the double standard applied to female children's birthright, a conflict that permeates the Autobiografía from beginning to end. The menstrual blood, which comes as a terrible shock, symbolizes her exclusion from the "derecho de primogenitura" she had never questioned (as the oldest of six female children) but which her parents had never considered. But primogeniture refers to the right of the eldest son to inherit the property of his father, and was not understood to apply to female children. The sexual difference became clear to Ocampo only when she began to menstruate:

Un dia al abrocharme al calzón en el cuarto de baño ví que tenía una mancha roja. . . . Era sangre. . . . Me sentí de pronto como aprisionada por una fatalidad que rechazaba con todas mis fuerzas. ¡ Huir! Pero como huir de mi propio cuerpo. . . . Me sentía presa . . . de mi cuerpo que odiaba (1: 146).

[One day while fastening my pants in the bathroom, I saw a red stain. . . . It was blood. . . . Immediately I felt imprisoned by a fate that I rejected with all my strength. Flee! But how to flee from my own body. . . . I felt trapped . . . by my body that I despised.]

Her upbringing is depicted as only apparently privileged; emphasis is placed on her attempts to evolve her own code of ethics among hypocrites and tyrants (family members) while avoiding open rebellion. Expressions of anger and regret punctuate accounts of the paltry formal education—primarily studies in French and English literature—given young girls of the upper class. Educated by tutors at home with only her sister Angélica as classmate, she was never supposed to make history on her own: "La educación que se daba a las mujeres era por definición y adrede incompleta, deficiente. 'Si hubiera. sido varón, hubiera seguida una carrera,' decía mi padre de mi, con melancolia probablemente" (2: 16) [The education given to girls


was by definition and on purpose incomplete and deficient. 'If she had been a boy, she would have pursued a career,' my father said of me, probably with regret].

The record of four generations of ancestors paraded before the reader in volumes 1 and 2, buttressed by genealogical research Ocampo conducted in the 1960s, serves as much to set the stage for who she is not as for who she is. The elaborate backdrop of forebears serves primarily to focus the most alienating experience in the early years—the onset of menstruation and first incontrovertible evidence of her femininity. She depicts herself as a "prisoner" in her female body, marginal to this impressive patriarchal heritage.

Apparently unlike the writers and characters discussed by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar who name women's names in order to construct "grandmatologies" that reclaim their female heritage, Ocampo seems to seek shelter in the traditional family name.[17] The Autobiografía is an attempt to ground her female experience in a family name that is both overwhelming and nullifying. Yet the ambition to expose her femininity and confront the patriarchal traditions is complicated by the same patriarchal (and particularly Victorian) conventions that govern personal writing by women. She relegates all boys and men with whom she had romantic liaisons or sexual relations to an anonymous system of initials (for example, "J"), a practice that contrasts sharply with her obsession with naming names of ancestors in the same text.

How are we to judge, for example, the bold iconography of photographs and reproductions of herself (on the cover of each volume and spread throughout the volumes) and of selected central figures (family members, ancestors, and "great" men like Tagore), when contrasted with the use of initials for all of the men toward whom she acknowledges a series of childhood crushes? The use of initials at first seems to parody the openness she claims to demonstrate by revealing the evolution of her experience in love. Most of all, it contrasts curiously with the obsession with naming family members and friends of historical importance which permeates most of the autobiography.

This contrast between personal/sexual expression and the weight of family tradition is extended and reinforced by the bold photo-iconography that runs throughout the volumes, which were printed exactly as they were composed. Pictures of four generations of Aguirres and Ocampos are distributed throughout volumes 1 and 2, along with a photograph of Domingo Sarmiento dedicated to her great-grandfather, Manuel Ocampo. Famous friends and mentors, such as Marguerite Moreno (the diva who was Ocampo's voice teacher), Keyserling (two pictures), Ernest Ansermet, and Tagore, are also represented by imposing photographs. Naturally, numerous full-page photographs of herself grace the pages, as well as two portraits of her by well-known artists of the day—Helleu (1909, a drypoint done in Paris) and Troubetskoy (1913)—and the classic photograph by Gisèle Freund. Most


are head-and-shoulder portraits of her alone; thus they do not convey a sense of her imposing height or size—she was over six feet tall. All are of herself as a young woman; none brings her beyond the early 1930s. Again, the body is suppressed. Yet the uniformity in size of most of the photographs of herself and others (mostly single shots of single figures which cover a full page) manages to convey the grandeur of her project by other means. The cover of each volume is dominated by a large photograph of the author; only volumes 1 and 4 vary from the format of the elegant young face in a designer hat, with the body cut off at the shoulders. The cover photograph of volume 1 depicts her as a small child on the knee of her imposing father; volume 3 (which contains the story of her romance with "J") departs from the other likenesses with a highly stylized oil painting of a full-body pose.

Even while she refers to her lovers by initial only, the tactic of hiding their identity reaches its contradictory height when she reproduces a photograph of "J" (3: 32–33) and of a statue of Joan of Arc, which is labeled as a likeness of "L. G. F.," the focus of an adolescent crush nipped by her elders (volume 1). Possible reasons for such tactics abound—irony, modesty, flaunting of tradition as she breaks it, respect for the families of these men. But in view of the flaunting of famous names and their photographic likenesses, the refusal to name these three symbols of her social development as a sexual being—the men involved in her first romantic fantasy, her ill-fated first marriage, and her first love affair—is remarkable indeed. Such differing treatments of two central facets of her life before Sur signals a lasting division in her attempts to reconcile personal aspirations and emotions with the weight of official family history.

In volumes 2 and 3 she passes from prisoner in the house of her parents to passionate adulteress in the house of her husband. Likening her world of the 1910s to that of García Lorca's Casa de Bernarda Alba and the nineteenth-century "esclavitud tremenda" of Charlotte Brontë or Elizabeth Barrett, she depicts the impossibility of directly confronting the intransigent moral code imposed by her family on her relations with men or her professional aspirations. In her discussion of her long-term clandestine love affair with "J" during the height of her childbearing years, she explains that maternal instincts were overshadowed, with regret and resignation, by the stigma of illegitimacy of any offspring (divorce was illegal in Argentina until very recently). Forever the outsider, Ocampo thus transformed the "curse" of menstruation into a symbol of a unique "women's privilege" now forbidden her.

In volumes 4, 5, and 6, the dramatic conflict is focused on her passion for ideas and those who generate them, and her keen disappointment with their passion for her body, not her mind. The disintegration of her love affair with "J" combined with disappointing experiences with better-known intellectual jet-setters to provoke an identity crisis. She depicts the existential dilemma that peaked in 1929 as the inspiration to give birth to Sur , a literary endeavor more ambitious than she had imagined.


The 1920s represent years of critical turning points in her life, the years between her break from both parents and husband and the publication of the first issue of Sur . This was the decade in which her two greatest passions and ambitions—for love and for literature—sought their meshing points and in which her search for a self was a graphic struggle to reconcile body, mind, and spirit. These 1910s and 1920s barely hint at the political turmoil sweeping Argentina—the anarchist movement and struggles for workers' rights, women's rights, university reform. Nor does she mention avant-garde projects in the arts, for she took little part in any of these. This is a private drama, whose historical background comprises her own blood relatives (and their close friends), whose literary and spiritual guides are English and French writers like Proust, Montaigne, George Sand, Henri Bergson, and Stendahl, and whose characters are a batch of foreign intellectuals—Keyserling, Ortega y Gasset, Tagore, Waldo Frank—whom she was to cultivate first in Buenos Aires, then in Europe and the United States.

Yet both the Argentine blood heritage and the European intellectual one provide a plethora of mixed messages and apparent contradictions. Ocampo seems to promise their resolution through her own writing and magazine endeavors (announced in volume 6), but she appears more often strung between these two sets of antecedents than at peace with either. Speaking of the early 1930s, she claims discomfort with her dual role in the magazine: as beneficent mecenas she feels at home, but as literary editor/publisher soliciting and judging others' literary production she feels inadequate (6: 69).

What is the overall picture the reader draws of the young (aged twenty to forty) Victoria Ocampo? A rich young woman who does not fit; deeply alienated, but tied to the primary representatives (both family and mentors) of the system of values that provoke her alienation. A young woman who first intuitively, then with forethought, creates from this alienated body a literary corpus and offensive. Though Ocampo capitalizes on class privilege, unlike her forefathers she battles the internal and external cultural expectations imposed on her sex.

"Yo Soy Lo Otro, Pero, ¿ Qué?"

[Autobiography] is the most self-assertive and self-revealing of genres.[18]

To understand one's life as a story demands that one perceive that life as making sense; autobiographies record the sense their authors hope their lives make.[19]

As the picture of a young Argentine woman of the upper class coming of age in the early part of the twentieth century, Ocampo's work differs dramatically from the nineteenth-century male testimonial/autobiographical tradition of the founding fathers of Argentina, in whose company she is usually placed by dint of class. Indeed, her work is more accurately inserted in the


"autogynographical" company of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American women writers.[20]

As much recent study of women's autobiography reveals, no matter how traditional critics and theorists of autobiography define the genre, women who dare to take themselves as the primary focus of their own first-person narratives have generally been considered either arrogant and self-centered (thereby offending accepted codes of women's behavior) or trivial, since the "private" life of even a "public" woman is traditionally devalued when judged by the standard of autobiographies of men of accomplishment. Female autobiographers who try to bridge the gap between public images and private lives have often found themselves in a paradoxical double bind: efforts to reveal their "true" self throw them into direct confrontation with critical expectations of trained readers and social expectations for women's propriety. Telling the truth becomes even harder than it first appeared.

Nancy Miller attributes some nineteenth-century writers' hesitancy to name names of lovers to the backlash against Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "tell-all stance—especially in the area of the sexual connection, the erogenous zones of the self." In her study of George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir and others, she shows that "full disclosure" is obviously not the aim of male or female autobiographers, but that the issue poses a special problem for women autobiographers even when they are distinguished writers and "already figures of public fiction." For women autobiographers, "the concern of notoriety, then, functions as an additional grid or constraint placed upon the truth." For women, the self's being justified is "indelibly marked by what Simone de Beauvoir calls 'feminitude,' a culturally determined status of difference and oppression."

Like the works of the writers in Miller's study, Ocampo's work presents an "official reconstructed personality" while it also broaches the author's " 'submerged core,' [and] the 'sexual mystery that would make a drama.' " The difference between women's autobiography and that of men, according to Miller, is located in "the 'I' of the beholder, in the reader's perception and identity": although both male and female writers inscribe their sexuality on a literary text, male gender "is given and received literally as a mere donnée of personhood." Thus Miller proposed the notion of gender-bound reading, "a practice of the text that would recognize the status of the reader as differentiated subject . . . named by gender and committed in a dialectics of identification to deciphering the inscription of the female subject."[21] The intertextual self-examination in which Ocampo engages in Testimonios , the Autobiografía , and Sur is significantly informed by such gender-bound reading.

The consistently peculiar vision of women's autobiography in discussions among traditional (male) critics of the genre (and critics reading male texts) has drawn the attention of feminist critics rereading these works. Although critics of male texts share only a basic consensus about the definition of auto-


biography, their consistent lack of attention to the voluminous personal writing by women is striking.[22] When Domna Stanton began in the early 1980s to trace the history of women's autobiographical production in literature, she was mystified by the plethora of autobiographies by men listed under the catalog heading and the "ghostly absence" of titles by women:

Even in phallocratic terms, it made no sense. How could that void be reconciled with the age-old, pervasive decoding of all female writing as autobiographical? One answer . . . was that "autobiographical" constituted a positive term when applied to Augustine and Montaigne, Rousseau and Goethe, Henry Adams and Henry Miller, but that it had negative connotations when imposed on women's texts. It had been used, I realized, . . . to affirm that women could not transcend, but only record, the concerns of the private self; thus, it had effectively served to devalue their writing.[23]

In the lengthy debate about the relative merits of and distinctions between various forms of personal narrative, critics have generally tended to privilege "autobiography" above all others. As Ocampo's avoidance of this term until the last years of her life shows, she also believed in this hierarchy. In the context of her collected work, the Autobiografía is, then, the boldest possible affirmation of self-narration: it represents an attempt to lay down the shield of the mirrored reflections of her self through others which she has used in the testimonial project. Ironically, the title also suggests that the taboo against discussing her body explicitly can be broken only after her death.

Stanton, Estelle Jelinek, and other feminist theorists point consistently to the need to read the difference in self-fashioning in women's autobiographies; they call for dispensing with polemics among critics eager to limit discussions to genre and focusing instead on the gender of self-representation. It is in this context that Ocampo's very different emphasis on her corporality and female sexuality can best be understood.

In her groundbreaking studies of women's autobiography, Jelinek is not interested in the traditional male critical tendency to "legitimize autobiography as an aesthetic genre in order to distinguish it from mere historical document" or to perpetuate a hierarchy among autobiographical forms which privileges autobiography over memoirs, testimonies, or diaries. Jelinek terms this tendency an "autobiographical fallacy" and examines the problems such reading has posed for women autobiographers.[24]

According to Jelinek's hypothesis of differences between male and female autobiography, Ocampo's work combines primary features of both male and female autobiographies: it displays "a unity [and unidirectionality] that betokens a faith in the continuity of the world and [her] own self-image," while in narrative form and organization it reveals much of the "disconnectedness" and "fragmentation" traditionally linked to women's autobiographical writing.[25] The Autobiografía combines various forms—from historical sum-


mary and fragments of childhood memories to previously published material and letters, inserted in groups or singly, sometimes with little introduction. Transitions between these parts can be loose, tight, or not initially apparent.

Ocampo was as familiar through her reading with the European and American traditions of women's autobiography—from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and St. Teresa de Ávila to George Sand, Mme de Stael, Colette, and Virginia Woolf—as she was with the Argentine male "generación del ochenta" of Domingo Sarmiento and Manuel A. Pueyrredon (1802–1865) through her family connections. She combined facets of both traditions in her own testimonial and autobiographical works, just as she struggled in her life to reconcile her sexuality and feminism with her oligarchic class connections. Ocampo belonged to the upper class by dint of family heritage, but her sex and experience determined a unique evolution. She was not a player in the political world of her forefathers, but rather combined the role of female salon leader with extensive writing and the direction of an important literary magazine—a combination of roles not shared exactly by any of her contemporaries, male or female, in Argentina.

In a study of five activist women autobiographers born in the nineteenth century—Emmeline Pankhurst, Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker ), Eleanor Roosevelt, and Golda Meir—Patricia Meyer Spacks characterizes their accounts as "female variants on the high tradition of the spiritual autobiography." Although only Day could be said to adhere to a formal tradition, Spacks compares the "certainty" characteristics of spiritual autobiographies (which "draw energy and conviction from the affirmation of transcendent meaning") to the "rhetoric of uncertainty  . . . about the self, about the value of womanhood, about the proper balance of commitments" evident in these modern women's autobiographies.

The women in Spacks's study possess two traits in common with Ocampo: they all "describe themselves, implicitly or explicitly, as gaining identity from their chosen work," and yet "all won not only fame but notoriety, each the object of bitter attack for her public achievements." Ocampo always explained her commitment to Sur in terms of its "spiritual meaning" (Spacks's term), often to the dismay of friends and foes alike.[26] She also characterized her own story as a "proclamation of faith" (1: 59) in the confessional tradition of Catholic mystics like St. Teresa (1515–1582) and Sor Juana (1648/51–1695).[27]

Argentine critics of Ocampo's Testimonios such as Blas Matamoro and Juan José Sebreli have positioned her in the tradition of the male "generación del ochenta" [the generation of 1880], describing testimonial writers of the oligarchy who make "el inventario de sus posesiones, hablando sobre sus parientes, sus amigos, sus casas, sus viajes, sus libros"[28] [the inventory of their possessions, and speak about their relations, friends, houses, travels, and books]. She demonstrates the tendency that Adolfo Prieto identifies


within "buena parte de la literatura autobiográfica [masculina] argentina durante el siglo XIX: el actitud del hombre que necesita justificarse ante la opinión pública"[29] [a good portion of Argentine (male) autobiographical literature in the nineteenth century: the attitude of the man who must justify himself to the public], yet the "triviality" for which she is criticized by Matamoro and Sebreli only highlights the difference in social experience, expectations, and self-perception of female members of the same class.

In discussing the problematic relation of literate women in history to "the culture of the alphabet," Gilbert and Gubar concur with Claude Lévi-Strauss that "writing may always have been associated with class oppression." Yet they distinguish the literary production of women, regardless of class affiliation, from that of men: "as feminist theorists from Woolf to Beauvoir have argued, the situation of women goes beyond class: no matter what their socioeconomic status, those who reproduce the species have never controlled the production of culture."[30] The undifferentiated classification of Ocampo's autobiography and collected work still maintained by critics of the Argentine male oligarchy ignores the sexual difference central to a full understanding of her self-image and the cultural myth that surrounds her. The unresolved search for an identity as female oligarch which lies at the center of Ocampo's collected work and represents the explicit focus of the Autobiografía raises questions about the role of women in propagating high culture. Ocampo's identification with the patriarchal legacy of Argentina's founding fathers constitutes the dilemma at the core of her cultural ideology and her sexual identity.

Argentine women writers roughly contemporary to Ocampo such as Delfina Bunge de Galvez, Norah Lange, Silvina Bullrich, María Rosa Oliver, and Carlotta Garrido de la Peña have also written autobiographical accounts that provide a challenging basis for comparison with Ocampo's Autobiografía .[31] Unlike these women, however, Ocampo wrote exclusively in explicitly autobiographical forms. Also unlike her female contemporaries in Argentina, she was a businesswoman of letters. Acknowledged as a central figure in the production of high culture, she was not only mistress of her own texts but also editor and coordinator of others' literary production.

Elizabeth Winston's study of autobiographies by North American and British women writers published after 1920 helps to place Ocampo's among the unprecedented number of autobiographies written by women and men in the Americas and Europe in the 1930s:

Women who published autobiographies after 1920 . . . no longer apologized for their careers and successes, though a few still showed signs of uneasiness at having violated cultural expectations for women. . . . This change in the autobiographer's relation to her readers reflects an important change in the writer's self-image and the kinds of autobiographical intentions she exhibited. That is, the more confident these women became of the legitimacy of their way of life,


the more freely they used autobiography for explicitly personal and, thus, more self-validating reasons—to express strongly held beliefs, explore and understand the self, or experiment with the conventions of the genre.[32]

Winston summarizes common reasons given by women like Gertrude Stein, Edith Sitwell, and Harriett Monroe for writing autobiographies: "to inform or exhort their readers, to clarify the past for themselves, . . . to experiment with the autobiographical form, or to assert their personal superiority." A recurring conflict in these works also seems to apply to Ocampo:

Yet, even in these vigorously self-affirming narratives, especially in Sitwell's angry autobiography, one detects the signs of struggle, the force spent in challenging criticism and fighting restriction. One gets a glimpse, in other words, of the price of success for a woman writing.[33]

The posthumous publication of the Autobiografía reinforces a reading of Ocampo's entire testimonial and autobiographical opus as a lifelong struggle to shape an integrated persona. Although the Autobiografía suggests that her disappointment in love and doubts about her own talent as a writer in the 1920s would be assuaged by the founding of Sur , like the Testimonios , this account rather emphasizes a series of dilemmas that she seemed never to resolve. Her primary adherence to French as a literary language in her own writing conflicted with her commitment to publish in Spanish for Argentine readers, causing a sense of linguistic displacement in more than metaphoric terms. As a woman, she was torn between adherence to male models and the need for self-affirmation. And in her search to define her self, she was torn between dependency on patriarchy and defense of her own autonomy.

Ocampo's Autobiografía betrays a self as divided and disparate as those of the women writers who served as her literary models. Yet, as Nancy Miller has explained in her study of French women autobiographers, the exercise of justifying an unorthodox life by writing about it is an assertion of power which must also be understood as a reviolation of masculine turf. Ocampo's Autobiografía is also "a defense and illustration, at once a treatise on overcoming received notions of femininity, and a poetics calling for another, freer text."[34] Though Ocampo's work displays the prejudices of her class and economic status, as does that of her male predecessors, the subject of her autobiography is similar to that of other women: "a self both scotomized and overexposed by the fact of her femininity as a social reality."[35] In Sur y Cía [Sur & Company], the last volume of the Autobiografía , Ocampo promises to resolve the conflict of her dual identity through the founding and directing of Sur , undoubtedly the literary project for which she is best known. On the last page of her narrative (6: 86) she declares that the story of her life was melded with that of the magazine from the day it was born in 1931, thus justifying the closure of this Autobiografía .

In an essay commemorating Ocampo in 1979, Emir Rodríguez Monegal called for a rereading of her Testimonios and suggests her problematic position


in the modern literary history of Argentina: "Se va a necesitar mucho tiempo para que [Los testimonios ] sean leídos como lo que son: la crónica de una mujer que en país de machos condescendientes se atrevió a pensar y a sentir y amar como se le dió la gana" [much time will need to pass before the Testimonios will be read for what they are: the chronicle of a woman who dared to think, to feel, and to love exactly as she pleased in a country of condescending machos]. And he disagrees with Borges's cavalier assessment of Ocampo as impervious to social convention and the judgment of others—" 'Victoria siempre hizo lo que quiso, and she got away with it ' " [Victoria always did what she wanted. . . .]. In his epitaph he responds to Borges—"Si, se salió con la suya, pero a que precio"[36] [yes, she always got her way, but at what price]—and signals both the problem and the solution for it.

Elaine Showalter has argued that "the specificity of female writing will emerge . . . from the study of the woman writer's interaction with both her male and female literary heritages." It is precisely this combination of traditions which Ocampo straddled so uncomfortably throughout five decades of autobiographical production and editorial involvement. Like other "women writing," Ocampo is not "inside and outside of the male tradition," but rather "inside two traditions simultaneously."[37] Despite the impressive volume of her literary production, she made an uneasy peace with the two "traditions." Ocampo's work represents a challenge to accepted theories of literary influence and to conventional role divisions in the business of letters. The "price" she paid for her accomplishments is reflected in the persistent disparity between her public image and the private self which emerges from an integral reading of her collected work.

Ocampo determined Sur 's official policy and was called to account for it publicly, but she was marginalized as a writer and a woman when she applied these ideals within the very pages of the magazine. While she might have wished that the story of her life were contained in Sur , only the official half of it can be read there. The unofficial one is better reconstructed through the ensemble of testimonial and autobiographical writings.

In the Autobiografía , Ocampo presents a previously unarticulated look at her struggles to conquer expectations to which she was intuitively and intellectually opposed. Though it is a provocative picture, unique in modern Argentine letters, of a young woman coming of age in the early part of the twentieth century, it also has the air of official epitaph. The work reveals in one bold, consolidated text both the extent of Ocampo's feminist rebellion and the restrictions imposed on it by her loyalty to the upper class into which she was born.

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Eight— A Question of Blood: The Conflict of Sex and Class in the Autobiografía of Victoria Ocampo
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